Sunday, June 29, 2014

Neo Bohemias in East London- A Travelogue, Part Two

I made my landing in London last Thursday, and chose to stay in Shoreditch, a residential and commercial district on the East side of London. Wanting to be in close proximity to street art and graffiti art, I used a google search to guide my AirBnB room investigation, which resulted in a spot near to Brick Lane.

How to describe the area? It is energetic. Such energia lies in the intense displays of night life (seemingly blank warehouse fa├žades suddenly manned by larger men, bouncers, while glamorous men with faux-hawks, tight pants, carefully manicured facial hair and women wearing fancy jumpers, legs and arms bare, and shimmering jewelry and makeup flow in and out. But it also emerges in the day time movements of commuters, bike riders in yellow bests, with longer hair, jeans tattered and rolled up at the knee or ankle, nevertheless freshly showered and slightly bleary eyed, walking their bicycles while gulping down coffee in the emerging day. A large population of student and coffeeshop workers (performing laptop work whilst at a coffeeshop, though yes, some also baristas), myself included, take up residence in the many indie coffeeshops along Brick Lane. One, Kahilia, is a large open space with large tables of varying sizes and wooden chairs that are cut raw, allowing the grain of the wood to be visible. A crowd of younger people, all pale, in different tank tops and similar bird-crest hair cuts, gather around a table, eagerly discussing weekend plans. In front of me more "square" styles predominate as two men, more rotund with the fresh-shorn-sheep short haircut that I see more in the U.S. among prep school boys, sit on the same side of their table, discussing the merits of PhD school. "I can get a PhD for free, if I go to ____" the American one explains. The other nods slowly. I read the card on my table that informs me that the coffeeshop is also a not-for-profit space, as well as a church. I am invited (by the card) to a 7:30 pm service on Wednesday. Another shop, Brick Lane Coffee is shaped like a subway car, long and narrow, with decaying black couches and brown square leather chairs arrayed on one side of the room, and on the other, a long leather benth with red, yellow, and black narrow tables in front at regular intervals. The ceiling near the rear of the space is "graffitied" with chalk, "Fran and Andy Forever 2/22/11" or "Ronan and Svetlana 5.3.13," and also "Oliver and Ronni 2/11/11." A patron discusses with a customer getting a "big yellow storage unit" to turn into a room to "hang out with mates" in a warehouse down the way. A poster from some 90s era shower, faded, sits beside a window unit AC, conspicuously ugly on an orange strip of wall. A large mirror on the couch side reflects a man with the bird crest haircut, large square glasses, and some sort of black t shirt, pale, round cheeks that reflect the beginnings of stubble. He stares into his computer, seemingly unaware of the mirror in front of him, writing some sort of IT guide. Music plays, with a heart-beat like beat, synth pop something that I imagine is an appropriate ambiance for the starship trooper next to a hand drawn/painted wall that is deliberately messy. A raggedy yellow toy leers. In the evening, morning, and afternoon, there is always a rowdy queue at the two bakers shops that sell bagels with toppings for 1 to 2 pounds. There is a vintage shop every three doors, and a bar every five. The corner store is mostly organic, boasting a large variety of kale chips and marinated tofu.
Bethnal Lane Friday Morning. Photo Credit: Caitlin Bruce
The main attraction of this place, in addition to the distinctive and "personality" laden shops, are the people. The parade of experiments in old and new fashion, hair that is shorn, flowing, teased, and angled; pants that are fitted, flowing, cut off at the ankle or knee; glasses that demand recognition; all exhibit an intense commitment to self-fashioning, in Michel Foucault's sense, a self stylization that occurs under the dual imperatives of freedom to express, and compulsion to do so in a continual way. The walk down Brick Lane enables at least three social layers to emerge although in this four day visit much is unseen by me, an outsider. Many of the more basic shops, the bakeries, hardware stores, seem to be run by more working class folks, evident in a shift in accent, it is harsher, making me think that proximity to natural resources and their extraction and fashioning (coal, iron, gas, pipes, ovens) calls for the human voice to bend to them and take on their dense character.
Beigel Bake. Brick Lane, London. Photo Credit: Caitlin Bruce
Second, a diverse South-Asian and East-Asian population of first generation immigrants, also evident in linguistic accents, but also forms of dress. These first two populations, in framings of the neighborhood as "ethnic" and "old Londoners" are more like the background or scene against which the third population plays, providing some level of "grit" and "authenticity," although they too function as urban decor.

This is the variegated population of vintage sellers, buyers, tech industry members, knowledge workers, artists and other laborers that use spaces such as the coffee shop or work share spaces as their primary space for production. Isabel Lorey and Angela McRobbie have traced the history of artists and artisans in London and shifts in labor practices. Drawing largely on Lorey's work Bojana Cvejic and Ana Vujanovic, note:

 “The marginal place of artists in society and their precarious conditions of work do not relieve them of the responsibility to deal critically with the conditions of production….we should understand the types of work that artists developed in the last 25 years or so—a variety of flexible and temporary workshops, festivals, and residencies—as an outsourced training ground for flexible neoliberal politics and its ‘crisis management,’ which constantly seeks new ‘creative’ solutions resulting from improvisations in unknown surroundings. The political potential of the ephemerality of performance as a public event—which exhausts itself through the fragility of a performing body that embodies human physical coexistence at its most vulnerable—takes place exactly within this system of production. Without facing this dialectic (between fragility and capitalization) that determines the materiality of performance today, we will continue running in immaterial circles.” (Cvejic, and Vujanovic 176)

It seems that some of the street art in the area provides a running commentary on these various components of the labor economy in east London, the relationship between art, media representation, and land value.
Holywell Ln. Shoreditch, London. Photo Credit: Caitlin Bruce

Brick Lane, London. Photo Credit: Caitlin Bruce

Brick Lane, London. Photo Credit: Caitlin Bruce

Brick Lane, London. Photo Credit: Caitlin Bruce

Brick Lane, London. Photo Credit: Caitlin Bruce

Brick Lane, London. Photo Credit: Caitlin Bruce

Brick Lane, London. Photo Credit: Caitlin Bruce

Brick Lane, London. Photo Credit: Caitlin Bruce
The street itself is worn down, and the walls are covered in graffiti and street art, providing a series of platitudes, critiques, self-conscious gestures to social media apparatuses of circulation and capture, and aphorisms that both challenge and reify the seeming "authenticity" of the place. "Endure and Adore each other," a wall in ESPO's style announces on Holywell Lane, "They Want to be on Walls but Forget to Walk the Path," "To be honest I only put this here hoping you would instagram it," "Dissent," all along Brick Lane.

Brick Lane Market, on Sundays, offers an intensification of this display of creativity, nostalgia for a kind of countercultural past, and commodification of the neobohemian space of the neighborhood. I offer two representative vignettes.  (1) Jimi Hendrix cover rocker, rocking dreds rather than an afro, playing a miniature foot-drum-set and electric guitar, holding a shifting crowd of thirty in a semicircle of attention seemingly fitting against the more dingy, grey, and industrial buildings. Two hours later as I walk back towards the musician I see a policeman speaking sternly to another musician south of Brick Lane. Like a cascade of energy musicians begin to pack up. A friend whisper in the first rocker's ear, he calmly finishes his set, shifts the change into his guitar case, and calls a little boy to help him move his hear, while managing to note "Thanks, love," as I drop change in before zipper is closed, and hell "hey Dude!" at a boy who looks about 10 who seems to be unrelated to the scene, to pull him into departure procedures, invisible connections made visible. (2) Walking back to Bethnal Green from the flower market. A few middle aged locals are slowly walking behind me. "Do you like bumbles?" a man in khaki asks to one of his compatriots. "I like bumbles, but I heard that they may disappear, but when they do, the world will stop." No one really responds and the rain drizzles slowly.

Street musician. Brick Lane, London. Photo Credit: Caitlin Bruce
Walking home in the evening I came upon a developer's advertisement for new office and condo space, which is quite on the nose. On Dufferin or Scutton or Epworth Street, it has a 1950s style black and white image of a woman in a wool suit, looking up, surprised, lips pursed, with neatly piled paper around her. "White Collar Factory," it announces, marking neatly (the desire) to serve a fully post-Fordist production class.

Derwent London, "White Collar Factory." Photo Credit: Caitlin Bruce
An advertisement for new property near Bishops Gate and Bethnal Green draws on similar rhetoric, boasting "Flexible space," for "creatives," neatly appropriating language of 1960s social movements for a mode of self stylization and economic life that reduces freedom to a rather privatized notion style, rather than redistribution and activation of public space.

The role of public art in Brick Lane, and here I include the musician as well as the street artists, provides a key lens through which to understand the ongoing practices of gentrification and domestication of bohemia. Richard Lloyd describes such spaces, where former working class and bohemian enclaves become capitalized and attractive precisely because of their "grit" as the workings of "neobohemia," and troublingly, suggests that the presence of marginalized populations; the homeless, drug addicts, and so forth, provide greater authenticity of the region.

Angela McRobbie considers the capitalization of art in London and explains:

“I will be suggesting that when the arts and culture per se, become the focal point for capitalization (the logic of late capitalism as Fredric Jameson famously put it), when culture broadly becomes absolutely imperative to economic policy and urban planning, when art is instrumentalized so that it begins to provide a model for working lives, and labor processes, and when government opens a Green Paper document as it did in 2001 with the words ‘Everyone is creative’, then it becomes apparent that what in the past was considered the icing on the cake, has now become a main ingredient of the cake (DCMS, 2001). And what had been in the past left to its own devices (subculture and style, or black expressive culture or the punk avant-garde) has been plucked, over the years, from obscurity, and is now promoted with tedious regularity under the prevailing logic of revival in the window spaces of Selfridges and Harrods almost every season, as a leading edge  feature of the UK’s contribution to the new global cultural economy.
Our imagined community and branded national identity now comes to be constituted through practices that are understood to be creative. This appellation is then deployed in policies which introduce such things as Creative Partnerships into schools across the country to incorporate a kind of third sector of education and training which is neither technical nor strictly academic and into which are slotted substantial numbers of young people. We still have no real idea of how this will work out on the longer term and what kinds of careers will develop, but this notion of creative education emerges as a modernizing and mobilizing strategy that will tap into young people’s existing attachment to arts, popular culture and contemporary media. This then is where the investment is being made, in a perceived immersion in and connection with the field
of media and culture.” (McRobbie 120-121)

When creative cities discourse is made central to urban life it also means that it is impossible to extricate considerations of precarity and citizenship from a consideration of the role that art plays in cities. It further suggests that it is perhaps in the realm of the aesthetic that possible resistance can arise. But it demands an art that elucidates networks of dependency and collectivity rather than pure individualism and the "flexibility" that erodes networks of intimacy, particularly by calling attention to the street and public space as a key mode for social making and becoming, but also marking the temporariness and temporality of such making. It offers the possibility that the aesthetic can become again an interruptive force. It may work, perhaps, as what Jon Pounds describes as a haunting elegy, marking the forms of life and production that have been written out by gentrification, like the bees, the creative buzzing of street art is a form that may soon become dessicated and dead, or lost. In one of the interior markets at Brick Lane market (also an important spatial distinction that seemed to hold out along class lines, the indoor markets were more expensive, more "artisan" flavored than the ones that were held in car lots closer to Bethnal green, more "art" and less "junk") a man was selling prints of sections of Brick Lane. One of them had a cartoonish image of a radio station, now gone. Highlighting the erased landscapes of rising property values through aesthetic production, one may hope that public arts can engineer a kind of haunted landscape. Or may not.


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